Ontario Premier Doug Ford is facing calls to rescind the King’s Counsel appointments given to lawyers within the Progressive Conservative caucus, as the government faces backlash over a growing patronage scandal.
The government unveiled a list of 91 lawyers on June 30 who would receive the long-abandoned designation, allowing them to add the initials K.C. to their names denoting their “commitment to the pursuit of legal excellence in service to the Crown, the public and their communities.”
On Tuesday, Attorney General Doug Downey said, “The people who received it, you will see, are worthy recipients and I’m glad we did it.”
The list, however, included several members of the Ontario Progressive Conservative caucus, cabinet ministers, senior staff in the attorney general’s office, Downey himself, Premier Ford’s family lawyer and donors to the Ontario PC party — which critics of the Ford government called “outrageous.”
“It’s the government MPPs giving themselves this kind of award,” said NDP MPP Marit Stiles. “It’s unbelievable.”
Bruce Ryder, a law professor with York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said while a K.C. lawyer is typically regarded as a long-serving, eminent member of the profession, the designation has been “tainted” by the whiff of patronage.
“Ontario decided to abolish the designation in 1985,” Ryder told Global News. “So it’s a bit of a surprise to find out that at the end of June the government, 38 years later, had decided to bring it back.”
While the government said the honorary distinction has “no financial incentives” and “no preferential treatment or privileges,” members of the legal community argue the title gives lawyers the ability to boost their fees charged to clients.
“I think that’s one of the reasons lawyers covet them,” Ryder told Global News. “It signals that they’re a senior and eminent member of the bar therefore they can charge accordingly.”
The Ford government is also facing questions about the appointment process and who drafted the list of recipients who would ultimately receive the award.
Downey said he was responsible for bringing it to cabinet and that the premier has “way more important things to do” than get involved in the K.C. appointments process.
“He’s got bigger fish to fry,” Downey said.
Other Canadian provinces that maintained the K.C. designation require that the lawyer would need at least 15 years of service and would need to display “exceptional qualities of leadership in the profession.”
In Ontario’s case, some of the appointees are rookie lawyers, with fewer than 10 years of service, while others — such as Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney — were not previously licenced to practice law in Ontario.
While the province said the nominations process for future appointees “will be announced at a later date,” Ford expressed slight discomfort with how the process played out.
“Should there have been a process, another process? Yes,” Ford told reporters on Tuesday, before adding that one will be implemented in the future.
The NDP is calling on the PC MPPs to relinquish their K.C. titles and for the premier to require them to go through the application process.
Ryder said, going forward, the government should model Ontario’s application process after other Canadian and Commonwealth jurisdictions — with an independent section panel comprised of legal peers.
“The government ought to … put in place a process of selection of K.C.s that we can have confidence in,” Ryder said.
“Because they’ve really mucked this one up.”